Rajen Tarafdar made only seven movies in thirty years. And yet, his work reflects a maturity rarely seen in Bengali cinema. His cinema often spoke of the marginalized and the oppressed, and even seasoned filmmakers like Shyam Benegal were dazzled by his work. Today, he is almost forgotten.
When it comes to Bengali cinema, it’s as if the world can’t see past the devouring Trinity of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Even Bengalis, always on the brink of an identity crisis, often seem to suggest that all they have to show off in the movies is the trio. “Beyond the Trinity” is a series within a series where Aborish sheds light on some amazing talents in Bengali cinema that the world needs to know about and celebrate.
There was this talented director who was also a talented graphic artist and worked at a leading foreign advertising company before he started making movies. The fact that he was an illustrator helped him do storyboards and hand-drawn sketches. He made his first film on a shoestring budget, with a relatively new production designer named Bansi Chandragupta. His film was released in the mid-1950s and heralded the arrival of a fresh new voice on film. His name was Rajen Tarafdar. The description above makes one think of another Bengali filmmaker who was also a graphic artist in a foreign advertising agency and made his first film in the 1950s.
There are many points of intersection between the film careers of Satyajit Ray and Rajen Tarafdar. This is especially striking when one looks at Tarafdar’s debut, Antariksha (1957). It is a furiously original piece of work, and shot with particular sensitivity to the landscapes, flora and fauna of rural Bengal. Some of the frames are very reminiscent of Pather Panchali: children in a rural setting, ponds, domestic animals and dilapidated shacks amidst dense foliage. The similarity in appearance in the two films may also have to do with the fact that two of the crew members were common to both projects: production designer Bansi Chandragupta and cameraman Dinen Gupta (who assisted Subrata Mitra in filming). Pather Panchali). But the parallels to Ray’s movie were only skin deep. Rajen Tarafdar’s film is clearly different in style, temperament and plot.
Antariksha was based on a story written by playwright and actor Tulshi Lahiri. It had a convoluted plot about mistaken identity and well-kept family secrets. But it had a visual richness and maturity quite unlike a normal directorial debut. In his first film, Tarafdar managed to attract veterans like Chhabi Biswas and Padma Debi. Antariksha it was such a nuanced work that one wonders, 65 years later, why it didn’t get the attention it deserved. Rajen Tarafdar came to the cinema through the theater. He had been deeply involved in theater since his school days. He directed plays, but also acted in them. Tarafdar’s experience and knowledge of acting stood him in good stead during his film career. His camera didn’t shy away from a bit of drama. Skillfully staged, edgy and beautifully shot emotional scenes were the hallmark of his films.
Too much leniency in local works (jatra) and theater may not have been viewed by their family as a productive use of a young person’s time. That’s how people were in those days. Tarafdar left his Rajshahi home at a young age and moved to Calcutta, where he was relatively free to do as he pleased. The theater remained a constant companion. Back in college, he only acted in plays, and directing was something that captured his imagination when he started working. Besides the stage, drawing and sketching were permanent passions. In fact, he went to the Calcutta Government College of Arts and Crafts where he graduated in 1940 and began working as a visualizer at J. Walter Thompson.
The one movie that put Rajen Tarafdar on the map and is still considered one of his best works is bargain (1960). Adapted from Samaresh Basu’s novel of the same name, it is an evocative tale about “creatures of the water,” as one of the characters describes the lot, the fishermen of Bengal who roam the waves of the Ganges and its tributaries in search of fish and redemption. One of their own was caught by the sea a long time ago, so the fishermen are wary of the sea. They believe that there is a curse and that venturing into the sea would mean certain death. But it is Bilash, the youngest of them, who is determined to go into the sea and explore it. Love blossoms along the way and death rears its ugly head. With extremely limited means, Tarafdar built elaborate sets. Towards the beginning of the film, there is a boat race involving dozens of actors and dozens of extras. With minimal crew and rudimentary equipment, Rajen Tarafdar managed to pull off scenes of extraordinary complexity involving hundreds of extras and elaborate action sequences. But despite all this chaos unfolding on the screen, bargain in short, it is a sensitive portrait of life in the riverbeds. Gyanesh Mukherjee’s powerful portrayal of the aging patriarch is unforgettable, as is the scorching performance from Niranjan Ray, who plays the beefed-up Bilash (seriously, he could give today’s six-packers a run for their money). In the same year, Niranjan also played the ruthless boyfriend Sanat in Ritwik Ghatak. Meghe Dhaka Tara. There was the heroine Supriya Choudhury all the way but in bargain, he has the opportunity to bite the paper.
bargain it was the only Rajen Tarafdar film that was widely viewed, acclaimed and appreciated. The songs, composed by Salil Chowdhury, were hits, especially this song by Manna Dey called Amay bhashaili re/ Amay dubaili re. The tune was reused in Bimal Roy’s Kabuliwala (1961) in song Ganga aaye kahan re/ Ganga jaaye kahan re (this time sung by Hemant Kumar), which was also Gulzar’s first release as a lyricist (Bandini would come two years later). The success of bargain allowed Rajen to recruit stars like Basanta Choudhury, Pahari Sanyal, Bhanu Bannerjee, Anup Kumar, Chhaya Devi as well as Chhabi Biswas in agnishikha (1962). It was a revenge drama about a son avenging his mother, and it bore a striking resemblance to Yash Chopra’s. trishul which was released 16 years later. Tarafdar went on with this Jiban Kahini (1964), a black comedy about a failed insurance agent (Bikash Ray) who is about to commit suicide, unable to bear the burden of debt. As he is about to jump, he meets a much younger man (Anup Kumar) who is also about to end his life. This gives the old man a bright idea. The film contains a variety of quirky characters (like the agent’s daughter who recites a mugged line every time a loan shark knocks on her door to collect her debt) and makes you laugh at the most inopportune moments.
Rajen had an unwavering commitment to his passion. When he had his heart set on choosing cinema as a vocation, he resigned from his position at the agency. JWT did not accept his resignation and insisted on sending a car home to pick him up. He would send his son Gora to yell at them from the balcony that Rajen wasn’t home. One day, the car stopped coming. Rajen was happily making movies and doing theater. But in a thirty-year career, he ended up directing a total of seven movies. But those handful of films remain to demonstrate his mastery over the craft of filmmaking. Even in the boats that rock on the river in bargain, his camera remained stationary. His experience seemed to stem from his own understanding of ordinary people and how his world works.
Shyam Benegal was deeply impressed by Rajen Tarafdar’s work. He has gone on record to admire his for Rajen’s cinema. In 1983, he cast Rajen in a negative role for his movie. Arohan. Rajen appeared in three other films, Mrinal Sen’s khandhar (1984) and Aakaler Sandhaney (1980) and Shekhar Chatterjee Basundhara (1986). The last movie is a great example of how skillful Tarafdar’s acting was. He often played illiterate and exploitative moneylenders or farmers. He was so good at rehearsing those roles that it’s hard to imagine that he is the same man who makes those exquisite films.
Also bargain Y antariksha, The other film that stands out in Rajen Tarafdar’s body of work is Lever (1975), a post-partition story about an old man who clings to a piece of furniture, an ornate bed, and his past, and how he learns to let it go. The film features some priceless moments shared between the two leads played by Utpal Dutta and Anwar Hossain from Bangladesh. Lever earned Rajen Tarafdar his second National Award (he won his first for bargain).
Rajen Tarafdar’s worldview and craftsmanship are evident in a story related by his son Gora Tarafdar to journalist Atindra Daniyari. Rajen was shooting for his swan song, naagpash (1987) in the Sunderbans, and Gora was assisting him. They arrived at a makeshift clinic. The doctor welcomed the filmmaker and his team. Rajen asked, where is Bhebo? Within a minute, “Bhebo” stood in front of them with half of his face covered with a gamcha (a towel with a handkerchief, which is commonly used in Bengal). Rajen asked her to uncover herself, and when Bhebo reluctantly revealed the other half of her face, their jaws dropped. There was a hole where her jaw should have been. It was the result of a fight with the feared Bengal tiger. On his way back, Rajen Tarafdar explained to his stunned son: “Cinema doesn’t mean presenting people’s struggles in nice fancy boxes. It means showing reality in the crudest way possible. How can you film in these places and not represent their daily struggles?
Rajen Tarafdar did not belong to any illustrious family, nor did he rub shoulders with the foreign press at international film festivals. He was always on the ground, constantly striving to show the daily struggles of ordinary men and women, for whom every day is a struggle to survive. He passed away in relative obscurity in 1987. An immensely talented filmmaker, he did not remain long in public memory. Even his centenary in 2017 passed in silence. The silence was deafening.
(This article is partially based on a Cinemaazi interview with Gora Tarafdar, Rajen’s son. I also sought the help of journalist Atindra Daniyari, who pointed me to your article. I would like to thank both of them.)
Ambosh is a National Film Award-winning writer, biographer and film historian.
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